The Department of Conservation spent more than $100,000
sending staff overseas to learn a firefighting skill they
don't even use here - and it plans to send them again.
As many as 47 staff are understood to have crossed the Tasman
to learn how to conduct controlled burn-offs. DoC does not
use the technique here and one staff member who went on the
trips admitted the group didn't "really do much fire stuff".
Details of the trips are revealed in documents obtained under
the Official Information Act.
They include an internal DoC email which discussed what
"excuse" the department could use for sending staff on the
Senior official Damian Coutts wrote the trips cost the
taxpayer "substantially" and admitted it would be difficult
to sustain them in future. He said "experience" and NZ
Qualifications Authority unit standards were plausible
excuses for taking the trips.
Another document suggested the training could provide
benefits to New Zealand in the event of a catastrophic major
Coutts also wrote that the training was relevant as the
department was often asked to provide firefighters for
"extreme fire environments" to Australia, Canada and the US
However, Taxpayers' Union executive director Jordan Williams
called the trips a "controlled-burning of taxpayers'
"This was an excuse for a junket, not training that furthers
New Zealand's conservation. They might as well have learned
The two trips cost Kiwi taxpayers at least $105,791 and
Australia's Government covered additional costs. The
deployments were organised in 2012 and again this year. It's
understood there were 25 staff on the first trip and 22 on
Despite the opposition - and Coutts' prediction of future
difficulties organising the trips - a DoC spokesman told the
Herald on Sunday that another trip was on the cards and March
or April were the preferred months for burn-off activities.
"So it's likely that it will happen then and we're expecting
to participate in that one, yes, if the Australians are
willing to have us," he said.
Williams expressed shock "that DoC is even considering more
trips to learn a practice that is of absolutely no use in New
Zealand". DoC appear to justify the trips to Australia on the
basis that their staff enjoy them, he said.
"It's not clear what New Zealand taxpayers received for the
spending. At best, Australia got cheap labour to assist with
their fire management."
The information emerges just days after DoC was slammed for
spending $6,300 on a "PR stunt" after flying three ministers,
a TV crew and photographer to the West Coast for a photo
It followed an announcement the Government planned to pass a
law allowing the recovery of high-value native timber blown
over in Cyclone Ita two months ago.
Conservation Minister Nick Smith would not comment on the
- by John Weekes, Herald on Sunday